The latest Skeptiko podcast features an interview with Daryl Bem on his controversial experiments into precognition. It begins with quite a good short summary of the research from Bem himself, but then gets interesting when Bem is asked his thoughts on skeptic Richard Wiseman, who has been somewhat the ‘leader of the opposition’ when it comes to Bem’s positive results:
Dr. Daryl Bem: [H]e’s very well-informed. He was trained at Edinburgh in the part of the Psychology Department that is the parapsychology wing. So he knows what he’s doing when he’s trying to replicate. As I say, he’s the smartest of them all. Some of them are truly dumb but he’s not one of them.
Alex Tsakiris: And I don’t claim that he’s not intelligent. We’ve had him on the show a couple of times. I think he’s deceptive.
Dr. Daryl Bem: Yeah. He is… he and Ritchie and French published these three studies. Well, they knew that there were three other studies that had been submitted and completed and two of the three showed statistically significant results replicating my results. But you don’t know that from reading his article. That borders on dishonesty.
Bem also gives a fascinating account of how he got started in psi research (he is also a magician, and was asked to show parapsychologists how they might be fooled by tricksters), and gives his answer to an excellent question from Alex Tsakiris on the merits of experiments with the ‘general population’ vs ‘psi stars’:
I do think we in the field are beyond the point of just trying to prove its existence. The time has come to really bore down into what are its characteristics, how does it work, can we possibly come up with a mechanism to explain it? And so I agree with that part of it.
But I tend to agree with people who raise the issue, why work with unselected students? Ed May, a physicist who’s in this field, has often said, “You know, if you want to study high jumping you don’t go out onto the street and ask random people to high jump for you. What you do is you find the world’s best high jumpers and study them because that is the way to understand what it’s about.”
And I agree with that. The reason I use unselected college students is because I want to encourage other people to replicate it. If I were just using the top 1% of psi-talented people in the country, my colleagues in mainstream psychology would not be able to try to replicate it. So who’s the population most accessible to my colleagues? And that’s, as we often joke, it’s white male sophomores taking Psych 101.
So I had a tactical or strategic reason for doing that.